AMHERST — Chaz Williams spots Steve Zack 14 inches in height, and averages seven fewer rebounds than the La Salle big man. Yet there was the UMass point guard, all 5 feet 9 inches of him, leaping over the 6-11 Zack to tip in a first-half miss at the Mullins Center Wednesday night.
La Salle coach John Giannini whipped around toward his bench and barked, “Chaz Williams just tipped in a miss against our best rebounder. Chaz Williams!”
Over the course of a 40-minute game, it was a small play by a small player. But UMass needed a big effort if it wanted to snap a two-game losing streak, and perhaps no play encapsulated the urgency more.
Or maybe it was simply a return home, where the Minutemen are now 10-0. Losers of three of their last four games, all on the road, UMass responded with one of its best of the season, beating the Explorers, 79-67, before a cozy crowd of 4,345 who braved the snow to catch some basketball.
Giannini sensed he was in trouble before the game even started.
“I could see it in warm-ups: They were focused, they were serious, they were together. They looked like a veteran team that knew they needed to win this game, and they had that look and they certainly gave that kind of effort,” Giannini said. “I was very impressed with their approach to the game, and how they started this game.”
UMass raced to a 6-point lead six minutes in, and never trailed by fewer than 12 for the final 24 minutes.
La Salle had a tough time catching the Minutemen, who prefer to push the pace whenever they can, and wanted to get back to that on Wednesday. Pressure defense. Defensive rebounding. Fast-break opportunities. As soon as a La Salle shot would bounce off the backboard, a loud warning call would come from the Explorers’ bench: “Back! Back!”
Didn’t work. UMass ran every chance it got, with 9 official fast-break points, all in the first half, which ended with the Minutemen in control, 43-27. But points in transition and on secondary breaks added up for UMass, which had four of its five starters score in double figures, led by 17 from Williams. The lone starter who failed to reach double digits, forward Raphiael Putney, had 8 points, 11 rebounds, and a career-high 5 blocks.
“I thought that was a much-needed win to kind of get us back on the right track,” coach Derek Kellogg said. “Our guys practiced well for two days, so I was confident that we were going to play well coming in. I thought we played good defense, we locked up especially in the first half, created some open-floor turnovers and some easy baskets.”
Ever since Saturday’s loss at Saint Joseph’s, the Minutemen (18-4, 5-3 Atlantic 10) talked about a return to playing UMass basketball, and for a full 40 minutes. That meant getting off to a faster start (the Minutemen had trailed at halftime the last two games), playing with more energy, and getting those 50/50 balls.
It also meant getting Williams more involved in looking for his own scoring plays, instead of worrying about getting everyone else involved. Williams had 11 points by halftime, and finished 8 for 13 from the field. He added eight assists.
UMass scored the first 4 points of the second half to push the lead to 20 and remove any outside chance of a La Salle comeback. The Explorers (12-10, 4-4) trailed by as many as 21 before a late push made the final score more respectable.
For the second straight game the Minutemen received great effort from sophomore guard Derrick Gordon, who scored 21 points at Saint Joseph’s. He had 12 on Wednesday, making 6 of 7 shots from the field, and added two blocks and three steals. His defense, along with Williams and Trey Davis (13 points, all in the first half), also helped hold the two top La Salle scorers — guards Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland — to 21 combined points on just 7-for-22 shooting.
“Right now my confidence is high,” Gordon said.
The Minutemen share that view, after a night they needed. Now they’ll see if they can take it on the road. Rhode Island awaits on Sunday.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.